When I was first starting to practice yoga, one of the jarring things about taking class was the funny words- the lingua franca of yoga is Sanskrit, the ancestor of modern Indian dialects and one of the early Indo-European root languages. There are, I think several reasons for this. One is to ground the physical practice of yoga asana in the Indian spiritual tradition (more on this soon, it gets complicated in a hurry). Another is for some clarity- many yoga teachers or styles have their own particular English names for their special squat or lunge variation (myself included), but will use the same Sanskrit word. Plus so much of it just sounds so darn cool. (pras-a-REEE-ta pars-vo-TOOO-nasana, it makes me feel looser just saying it.)
I’m only half joking- one slightly more esoteric reason is the belief that unlike English, Sanskrit takes into account language’s sonic effect on the body. For instance, it’s believed that Sanskrit words and chants actually have an impact on the nervous system of the speaker and the hearer because of the sounds they use, and not just the meaning of the word. (Om being the most obvious example) But I digress…
The only problem, for me at least, is if a teacher gets a little Sanskrit happy, it can leave even a seasoned yogi with whiplash trying to look around and see exactly what pose the teacher is calling. But fear not, there is hope, hope that doesn’t involve carrying a Sanskrit to English dictionary into each class. While it’s unrealistic to think you’ll memorize every pose name that passes your way, as with most languages, there is shorthand in yogic terminology that can help you through. Think of this as your Sanskrit Cliff Notes- it won’t get you the nuances, but you’ll catch plot points:
– numbers- eke (or eka) is one, dwi is two, trik is three (as in trikonasana, triangle)
– paws- hasta is a hand, pada a foot
So if a pose is eke pada blurbasana, it will involve one foot or leg. (eg. eke pada bakasana, one legged crow) And padahastasana means hands (technically under) to feet pose, often called gorilla.
Uttitha means extended, parivrtta (imagine an e sound between the r and the t’s) means revolved, or twisting. So uttitha hasta padangustasana means extended hand to foot (technically toe, padagusta is toe, pic below), and parivrtta trikonasana is twisting triangle.
Confused yet? Almost done:
Adho means downward, urdhva means upwards, most famously in upwards and downward facing dog. But that’s why wheel pose is often called urdhva dhanurasana, upward facing bow (dhanur is bow, as in bow and arrow).
We’ve done up and down- parsva is side. (Parsvotonasana, side angle) And viparitta means upside down, such as one of my favorite poses, viparitta karani, or upside down pose.
This doesn’t cover everything, obviously, but now if I hear something I don’t recognize, but it has eke pada, I know that it’s a one footed something, and that’s a start. Plus, you now have the knowledge to make up fancy yoga pose names! Uttitha dwi pada viparita kickmyasana anyone?
credits: I leaned heavily on yogadancer.com for this post, a very good online asana index. And if you are looking for a more detailed book of Sanskrit for asana practice and teaching, The Language of Yoga by Nicholi Bachman is the standard these days. I don’t have much use for the CD that accompanies it- trying to pronounce Sanskrit is like trying to pronounce Latin or Old English- we can guess, but we’ll never know- but the book itself is very good. And my brother Luke took the photos.